Placing A Dollar Value On Ecosystems: Bolsa Chica Conservancy Hosts Stephen Comello

Bolsa Chica Wetlands (Photo by Gregory Ori)

Most people in the neighborhood are acquainted with the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, Huntington Beach’s prized preservation centerpiece and magnet for nature lovers. Since 2004, the state of California has overseen a major restoration effort of more than 500 acres of this natural saltwater marsh using mitigation funds obtained from the Port of Los Angeles and Port of Long Beach. The Bolsa Chica Conservancy helps the revival mission by providing hands-on restoration and education to the public.

In the first of its new Speaker Series, the conservancy hosted Stephen Comello at its Interpretive Center on September 25 to discuss his research in the creation of a framework for evaluating firm-owned ecosystem services. Comello works as a research fellow at the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University and as a research associate at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

When firms, such as private entities or governments, own land encompassing important ecosystems, it is helpful to incentivize conservation. One approach is to evaluate the benefits ecosystems provide and translate those perks into financial values that firms can add to their balance sheets. Comello explained the complex method used to value the services that ecosystems like the Bolsa Chica Wetlands provide to humans. The wetlands serve human society in four ways: regulating resources, provisioning resources, supporting natural cycles (such as purifying water) and offering cultural benefits.

Comello used a mathematical model to valuate the service the area provides in cycling one element—phosphorus. The framework compares the ecological cycling of phosphorus to a human-engineered version to place a dollar value on the "work" this ecosystem does (at no additional cost to society). Of course, being a complex ecosystem, Bolsa Chica cycles many other elements and provides various services to humans, from acting as a carbon sink to inspiring spiritual connection. The framework needs more research and is in the development stages.

If firms apply this framework and find that it benefits their bottom line to conduct business in a way that preserves and enhances ecological areas, they may more readily invest in conservation. As the wetlands improve ecologically, surrounding areas become nicer places to live and visit. Local folks don’t always need a scientist to explain this to them, although it helps. Around town, high real estate prices adjacent to the reserve demonstrate this trend.

To experience the reserve, visit the Interpretive Center, located at 3842 Warner Avenue. Inside, explorers will find tanks of sea creatures, taxidermy birds and information on the ecology and history of the beloved wetlands.

The next Speaker Series installment is tentatively scheduled for November 15. Details are not yet available.

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